I just finished a glass of Stargazer IPA from a company called Rooftop Brewing Company in Seattle. It was delicious. A strong hoppy aroma gave way to a balanced body with plenty of malt. Normally, that particular beer isn't available near me here in Louisville. Rooftop is too small to distribute so far away.
I got a chance to try it because I brewed it from a prepackaged set of ingredients called a PicoPak in an automatic beer brewing machine called the PicoBrew Pico Model C. The $400 Model C is the most affordable and accessible automatic beer brewer I've tested.
If you just want to try some unique beer, PicoPaks won't save you money over buying a typical six-pack of craft beer. If you want the simplest route possible to making beer at home, using the Model C is mostly foolproof at this point, but it still requires cleaning and sanitizing. This isn't quite a Keurig for making beer. The Model C automates some of the process, but start to frosty beverage still takes weeks and requires your careful involvement at various steps.
After a few earlier attempts, this model is the closest PicoBrew has come to my dream of a perfect automatic brewer. I still don't recommend it to most folks with a casual interest in beer, but if trying a replica of unique beers from across the world sounds particularly appealing to you, and you have a decent amount of home brewing knowledge, then the Model C is worth considering.
Once a tech startup with a single machine in their lineup, PicoBrew has made a few automatic beer brewers at this point. More than the other PicoBrew machines, the Model C successfully simplifies the brewing process, and at a new, semi-reasonable $400 price tag. By comparison, the similar Pico Pro is $600 and the more involved Zymatic is $2,000.
You can buy the PicoBrew Pico Model C now from the company's site. It's available on Amazon as well and it will ship overseas. The $400 US price converts to roughly £300 and AU$530. The product includes all the parts you need to brew beer, but not the ingredients.
The ingredients come in the form of PicoPaks, which are also available on PicoBrew's site. You can't add your own ingredients with the Model C -- you have to use the prepackaged, sealed sets. That said, PicoBrew offers quite a variety of PicoPaks at this point. You can find beers of all different styles from breweries across the world, and you can even customize your own PicoPak. PicoPaks cost between $25 to $30 and produce roughly 5 liters of beer.
Keep a couple of things in mind, even if the premise and pricing sound perfectly reasonable: 5 liters translates to roughly 14 bottles of beer. Even with a $25 PicoPak, you're talking about paying roughly $12 for a six-pack, which isn't crazy for good beer, but it will be awhile before you make up the cost of the machine.
Also, PicoBrew just launched a crowdfunding campaign for the $300 PicoBrew Pico U. The Pico U will be able to brew coffee, kombucha, chai and more. The Model C is $100 more, bigger, and only makes beer. You need to attach a separate container to the Pico U to brew beer, so the Model C might be easier to use, but if the Pico U works well when it comes out early next year, the Model C might become outdated.
For now, the Model C is the easiest machine to use in the PicoBrew lineup. It's similar to the original Pico, now called the Pico Pro. The main body of the Model C is plastic, as opposed to the stainless-steel frame of the Pro. The Model C also has a smaller display than the Pro -- inevitably to help PicoBrew get the price down. In practice, I didn't notice much downgrade from either change, so PicoBrew appears to have trimmed the costs wisely.
You'll still want to keep the instruction manual handy when you're brewing with the Model C. Once you're going, the Pico takes care of everything itself, but you need to give the machine a rinse and make sure everything is installed correctly before you hit start.
Once you've rinsed the machine, you insert a PicoPak into a big plastic tub and slide the tub into the main compartment of the microwave-size Model C. You then fill up both a reservoir in the upper part of the main compartment and a separate brewing keg with distilled water. You can use the display to connect your Pico to your Wi-Fi, and the machine will read a code on the top of the PicoPak so it automatically knows what it's brewing. Attach a couple of clearly labeled hoses from the main machine to the brewing keg and hit start.
The other big difference between the Model C and the Pico Pro is the separate keg you attach to the main machine when you're brewing. The Pro uses a cornelius keg, which is fairly standard equipment in a home brewing setup, but cleaning the internal components of the valves can be a pain. With the Model C, you use a specialized keg with a top that simply snaps into place and comes free just as easily for quicker cleaning.
Once you hit start, the Model C turns your distilled water into unfermented (non-alcoholic) beer called wort over the course of a couple of hours of automated cooking time. PicoPaks include the normal ingredients for making beer, so the Model C steeps the distilled water with the malt from the PicoPak, then it boils this sugary water with packets of hops.
You can track your brew's progress on the company's site. When it's done, you'll have five liters of hot wort in your brewing keg. You'll need to remove the hoses, and set the beer aside for roughly a day while the liquid cools. Then, you stir in a packet of yeast also included in the PicoPak, and wait 5 to 7 days while your beer ferments.
At that point, your beer is technically beer -- it's alcoholic -- but it's still not ready to drink. You'll need to reattach the brewing keg to the main machine and use the hoses to transfer it to a separate serving keg so you can get it away from the now dead yeast. You add a packet of priming sugar at this point and wait another week or two while it carbonates. Then, you can chill your beer and drink it.
Given roughly $25 per PicoPak and a couple of weeks of waiting time and anticipation, it's quite disappointing when the beer doesn't turn out. Fortunately, even if you don't know what you're doing, that's less likely on the Model C than on previous models, but it's still not impossible even if you're being careful.
I made six beers over the course of a few months of testing with the Model C. Two were flat. I made them at the same time, as they comprised the second round of my testing. The Model C only comes with one set of kegs, so if you want to make multiple beers at once, you'll need to buy a second $60 brewing and $15 serving keg.
A couple of factors could have contributed to the beer turning out flat. The biggest issue is that the seals for the serving kegs don't hold up well to multiple uses. The seals combine rubber and plastic and work well the first time, but despite taking care while disassembling, cleaning and reassembling them, the plastic parts of the seal felt flimsy when I put them back together. I saw a little bubbling right after I filled the kegs and sealed them, so I'm guessing they weren't airtight.
Not being able to use seals twice is disappointing, but not quite a deal breaker. You can buy a set of three seals for $6 and I'd recommend using a new one for each batch to avoid this problem. You might occasionally be able to get a second use out of a seal if you're crafty, but the flimsy plastic will cause leaks for most after it's been disassembled once.
The beers also might not have carbonated properly because the room temp where I was storing them was too low. I'd turned down a temp-controlled lab to help the brews ferment. PicoBrew instructs you to carbonate at the same temp as your fermentation, but the exception to that rule is lagers. Lagers need colder fermentation temps, and a PicoBrew rep later told me I should have turned the temp back up before carbonating. PicoBrew's instructions don't walk you through that exception.
If you're in a rush to try your beer, the Model C includes a couple of carbon dioxide canisters and a regulator so you can force carbonate the brew instead of using a more natural process with priming sugar.
More worrying than the bad seal -- one batch turned out infected. The infection almost certainly happened because I made a mistake somewhere along the way. This was the last batch I made, so perhaps I needed to do another deep clean on the machine (I did one after batch two). Perhaps in my cleaning, a missed a spot under one of the seals. I clearly introduced a contaminant at some point, but my screw-up shows that the machine still isn't foolproof, and I was following the directions carefully. The Model C also doesn't come with anything to help with the lengthy fermentation and carbonation steps, so you'll be responsible for finding a good temperature controlled area in your house to avoid issues like infection.
Infection is a part of brewing life. Home brewers suffer its effects frequently and even professional brewers occasionally lose batches, but it's still something to keep in mind. You'll be better able to avoid infection if you have some experience home brewing before you use the Model C, which might mean you don't need an automated machine to make your beer in the first place.
Finally, three of our six beers tasted like solid brews I'd order in a bar. 50 percent might not seem like a great ratio, but the flat beers tasted fine aside from the one issue, so if they were sealed properly, they might have been quite good. The three good beers are worth particular attention, as they show the pros and cons of the process even when everything goes right.
The Stargazer IPA I mentioned earlier was my favorite of the three good beers. A couple of folks in the office didn't like it, but they generally don't like IPAs. A couple of us went back for a glass or two after our initial tasting. The aroma was particularly awesome. The Stargazer kit included a few packets of hops for dry hopping -- which is where you add hops after fermentation but before carbonation specifically to help the aroma. The process worked very well.
We also dry hopped our first beer -- called The Pale Hoppy Thing from Flying Bike Brewery. Again, Pale Hoppy smelled great. It tasted very bitter, especially at the end. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but again it turned off a few folks in the office. I'd also call the flavor more akin to a hoppy IPA than a Pale Ale, which tends to be a more balanced style. That said, I had seconds of that batch too.
Finally, we tried Buffalo Sweat, an oatmeal stout from Tallgrass Brewing. It was strangely sweet, but not bad. We tasted it side by side with cans of Buffalo Sweat, and the cans were dryer and less sweet. Now, a can of beer isn't going to taste the same as beer fresh from the tap, but the difference between the two was more than a matter of freshness. They tasted like two different stouts. The Model C's version was pretty good, but no one wanted more after the initial tasting.
When everything goes right, the Model C can make good beer, but it might not be a perfect replica of the brewer's version of your PicoPak.
In truth, I don't know what else I'm looking for. PicoBrew can't make the process much simpler while sticking to the traditional stages of brewing, and beer from concentrate doesn't sound appealing to me. Other automatic brewers are on the way that promise more help with the later stages of brewing like fermentation. The competition, though, is either much more expensive, or has been promised for awhile without coming to fruition. The Pico Model C is here now, it's reasonably priced, it's fairly simple to operate and it can make good beer.
Perhaps my goal of a fully automated beer brewing robot is an unachievable ideal. The reality of this machine is that it's still not a great fit for lots of beer fans. If you want to brew at home, starter home brew kits cost as little as $50. You'll probably get a better beer from the Model C than you would from your first time brewing from a starter kit, but you won't learn anything from the Model C. If you just want to drink craft beer, you probably have lots of cheaper options if you live anywhere near a city. If you really want to try one specific beer, you can probably buy a domestic plane ticket for the cost of the Model C and visit the brewery itself.
If you're a dedicated craft beer fan who is particularly interested in trying lots of brews from lots of different places, then you're in the right demographic for this machine. You'll want at least a little home brewing experience to guide you through the sanitation steps, and then the Pico C is worth considering particularly if you live in an area without access to a lot of craft beers. The replicas might not be perfect, but if you're careful and know what you're doing, they'll be close. The Model C is the closest we've come to the dream of a perfect beer brewing machine. It's still not quite there, but if you're willing to trade an occasional headache or bad batch for access to lots of beer, then this beer bot is worth the purchase.